At Camp Blessing in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, some American soldiers played “Angry Birds” on their iPhones when off-duty. Jonathan Springer decided to put his device to a different use: building an app to help fight the Taliban.
“I wanted to give something back to soldiers that might help save their lives,” Springer, 32, said in an interview from his base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The result is Tactical Nav, an iPhone application the U.S. Army captain built with $30,000 of his savings and a maxed-out credit card a year ago. The $5.99 app uses GPS technology and the iPhone’s camera to chart coordinates and guide artillery fire. It has been downloaded about 8,000 times by U.S., Canadian and Australian soldiers, as well as hunters and hikers, Springer said. From e-mails he has received from soldiers who have gone on patrol with it, the app has been used in both combat and training, Springer said.
If Teri Takai gets her way, American soldiers, sailors and marines may all soon be able to download Tactical Nav and other military programs through a dedicated U.S. Defense Department app store. Takai, the department’s chief information officer, wants to build a secure network of smartphone apps to help soldiers fight in new ways, from more precise maps to better manuals. If security challenges get resolved, the project will result in a revenue source for app developers and a potential boon for iPhones, iPads and Android devices.
“We would like a full range of devices to be able to securely operate with a DoD app store, but also be able to utilize commercial app stores,” Takai said in an interview in a small, windowless conference room at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
The Pentagon, whose research arm spawned the first version of the Internet in the 1960s, is now turning to technologies developed by civilians as it seeks to make its fighting force nimbler. Takai’s challenge is to create an environment in which soldiers can improvise on devices like Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad (AAPL) without letting the Pentagon’s security standards slip.
Soldiers “in a fight innovate and use all the technologies they have,” said Kenneth Minihan, who was director of the National Security Agency from 1996 to 1999. “It’s a very natural phenomenon to come out of troops in combat.”
Minihan runs Paladin Capital Group, a Washington-based company that invests in security-technology companies including software maker Fixmo Inc. He said the Pentagon is right to embrace these new innovations.
“If you go back to the Cold War, it was government- developed technology that we would introduce into the commercial sector,” Minihan said. “Today most of those technologies come from the private sector and get introduced to the public sector -- it’s the reverse.”
A wide selection of consumer apps has fueled the popularity of Apple’s iPhone and devices built on Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software at the expense of Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM)’s BlackBerry, which offers fewer apps. Faced with demands to reduce costs, government agencies are looking at adding security software to make Apple and Android devices safe enough to let employees use their own phones and tablets at work.
Takai says for the moment the Defense Department will continue to issue only BlackBerrys, the devices that rose to prominence in Washington a decade ago because of the security they offer. If Apple and Android devices can be built to be more secure, then the Pentagon is open to the notion of deploying those alongside BlackBerrys, particularly if that will save money, she said.
IPads for Marines
“In the immediate future, we’re not envisioning a bring- your-own device” policy, she said. However, “anytime we can introduce a competitive environment for anything we buy, that gives us an opportunity to make it most cost-effective.”
Contracts to supply the U.S. military or government with iPhones and iPads could be a source of additional revenue for Apple. There are about 650,000 BlackBerry users within the U.S. government and RIM has earned at least $395 million in sales from the government in the past decade, including $84 million so far in 2011, based on contracting data compiled by Bloomberg Government.
The Pentagon is running test programs with Marine Corps aircrews using the iPad for mapping, while the Army is evaluating the iPhone as a training tool. Still, getting iPhone and Android approved for official Defense Department use will probably take “years rather than months,” even if the devices are already being used on the battlefield, Minihan said.
That pace of change is frustrating, Springer said.
“It’s great that the Pentagon is moving in this direction,” he said. “I just wish it were happening quicker.”
After Springer’s app was introduced in January 2011, the government asked to see the code behind it, Springer said. He declined and said he has since heard little from the government, which he said he interprets as a tacit “green light” to keep selling it.
“People have told me, ‘We like what you’re doing and the initiative to change the bureaucratic system, but we can’t help you,’” said Springer, who continues to serve as a captain at Fort Bragg. He declined to give names of officials who have given him the feedback.
Knight’s Armament Co., based in Titusville, Florida, has been supplying rifles and night-vision scopes to the U.S. Army and Marines for three decades. Now it’s also promoting BulletFlight, a $30 ballistics app that incorporates the inclinometer and weather apps built into an iPhone to help soldiers calibrate their weapons more quickly.
Military officials have told Knight’s that it’s accurate to within 0.1 percent of the larger, bulkier ballistics computers that cost 10 times as much, Trey Knight, the company’s marketing director, said in an interview. Still, that doesn’t mean the product has received official endorsement from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon’s Takai says that balancing soldiers’ needs with security policy is one of her biggest challenges. Before joining the Pentagon last year, Takai was CIO of the state of California. She previously worked in state government in Michigan, and before that, spent 30 years at Ford Motor Co. (F)
“You have a senior person say ‘Well, gee, I have an iPad at home and love it and don’t tell me that with today’s technology you can’t make it work,” she said. “And I have to go back and say ‘Well sir, ma’am, yes in fact there are circumstances where that commercial technology doesn’t fit with our security requirements.’”
The open-source Android operating system, for instance, had an almost sixfold increase in threats such as spyware and viruses since July, Juniper Networks Inc. (JNPR) said last month.
Takai said she is careful about systems that don’t replicate RIM, which operates secure servers for each government client and gives them the encryption keys to those servers.
“They’re software solutions and the challenge is they have a certain vulnerability” that RIM doesn’t have, she said.
To date, the encryption used in the BlackBerry and RIM’s PlayBook tablet is the only one certified as secure by the government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which establishes what can used by federal employees. Independent labs are testing the encryption of devices including iPhone and iPad under the guidance of NIST.
The Defense Information Systems Agency establishes guidelines for military devices in collaboration with NIST. The only smartphone it has endorsed for use on defense networks is the BlackBerry.
Apple and Android devices are something the Pentagon can’t ignore because of their surging popularity with younger staffers, Takai said. Android’s share of the global smartphone market share more than doubled to 53 percent in the third quarter as RIM fell to 11 percent from 15 percent, according to research firm Gartner Inc. Meanwhile the iPad is outselling the PlayBook by about 100 to 1.
“We have young folks that want to bring them into this place,” Takai said. “We see great opportunities for these devices in terms of being able to get applications much more quickly in the hands of our war fighters. As long as we can do it in a secure way, it’s another communication mechanism that would be very beneficial.”
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